Lord of Publishing: A Memoirby Sterling Lord
A frank and insightful memoir of a life spent in publishing, by one of literature’s most legendary agents
Sterling Lord has led an extraordinary life, from his youth in small-town Iowa to his post-war founding and editing of an English-language magazine in Paris, followed by his move to New York City to become one of the most powerful literary/b>
A frank and insightful memoir of a life spent in publishing, by one of literature’s most legendary agents
Sterling Lord has led an extraordinary life, from his youth in small-town Iowa to his post-war founding and editing of an English-language magazine in Paris, followed by his move to New York City to become one of the most powerful literary agents in the field. As agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and countless others—ranging from Jimmy Breslin and Rocky Graziano to the Berenstains and four US cabinet members—Lord is the decisive influence and authors’ confidant who has engineered some of the most important book deals in literary history. In Lord of Publishing, his memoir of life and work (and tennis), Lord reveals that he is also a consummate storyteller. Witty and wise, he brings to life what was arguably the greatest era of book publishing, and gives a brilliant insider’s scoop on the key figures of the book business—as well as some of the most remarkable books and authors of our time.
“Sterling Lord has always seemed to me one of the last real gentlemen in the book publishing business, so courtly, gracious and calm that it’s hard to believe that any author ever screamed at him, but this and many other revelations in his book, prove that he is a consummate storyteller as well as a virtual institution after more than sixty years of agenting. Anyone who wants to know how the book business works (or used to work) ought to read this book. I had a great time reading it.” —Michael Korda
“Sterling Lord has been giving a masterclass in shepherding authors through the forests of publishing for fifty years. In Lord of Publishing he tells us how he did it. A revelation even for those of us lucky enough to have been with him all those years.” —Nicholas Pileggi
“This is a rare—if not unique—in-depth chronicle of a life spent with great determination and success in helping writers chart their often difficult way to publication. Lord of Publishing takes us behind the scenes, unfolding dozens of fascinating stories that reveal the challenges not only of launching a writer’s first book but perhaps as important shepherding his career, sometimes for decades. To my mind there’s nothing else quite like this rewarding chronicle. Writers—and editors too—who came to know Sterling Lord can thank their lucky stars.” —Robert Loomis
“Fifty years ago when I was the Articles Editor of Life, I bought a number of properties from Sterling Lord to excerpt in the magazine. I was so impressed by his professional judgment and I so much enjoyed his friendship that I asked him to be my own literary agent, which he has been for many years. Today I am no longer writing books, but as you will see from his delightful and zingy memoir, Sterling is still going as strong as ever.” —Ralph Graves
“Recognizing the merits of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the first novel submitted to him, Lord shopped the book around for four years until it found the right publisher—and instant literary immortality . . . Any reader interested in American literary culture of the last half-century will find something to savor.” —Publishers Weekly
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Lord of Publishing
By Sterling Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Lord of Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
Kerouac and Me
He rang the bell and walked through the door of my office, a below-ground-level room I had liberated from being a one-room-plus-bath studio apartment just off Park Avenue. He was wearing a light-colored weather-resistant jacket with a lightweight checkered shirt underneath. He was striking looking—"diamond in the rough" was the phrase that came to mind.
Two weeks earlier, legendary literary editor Bob Giroux of Farrar, Straus and Giroux had called to alert me that Jack Kerouac would be coming by. Giroux was one of the first established editors I had met. He had called and introduced himself and then took me to lunch. Obviously he wanted to meet the new kid on the block, and in particular he had heard that my client Ralph G. Martin was working on a book that he—Giroux—might like to see. The Martin project never developed, but the Kerouac did. I'd heard of Kerouac but knew very little about him. Giroux had edited The Town and the City, Jack's first and only conventional novel. Jack had just been to see him—it was 1952—and he needed a literary agent. Giroux thought I would be the right man. I was two years older than Jack, and as a starting agent, I had a good deal of energy and time. He added that Jack had typed his new manuscript on a 120-foot scroll of architectural tracing paper. That would be my problem, Giroux said.
Jack had the manuscript wrapped in a newspaper, which he extracted from a weather-beaten rucksack. He called it The Beat Generation, and he had already taken Bob Giroux's advice and retyped it on regular typing paper. He was courteous and respectful, but we didn't talk at length. He was leaving the product of years of work (and three weeks of typing) in my hands. He told me Giroux had rejected it.
This is the agent that Jack Kerouac saw—the way I looked and the desk I used every day, while I was trying to get him in print—in the fifties and sixties. It took four years to find a publisher who would take On the Road. I wore a tie to work daily, but contrary to the dress habits in the early twenty-first century, almost every man in the agency business did wear a tie then. In that period, all male agents were called gentlemen. I wore a necktie because I was brought up to do so, and I had dressed that way previously in my magazine office in Paris. Jack did not mind. In fact, he told me he liked my wearing a necktie.
It was actually the first novel submitted to me in my agency work, and I read it carefully, carving out time from the demanding nonfiction projects on my calendar. I was really taken with it. I called Jack and told him how strongly I felt about the manuscript and that I was ready to go with it. I felt that his was a fresh, distinctive voice that should be heard.
As we started working together I came to respect him and he, me. That mutual respect prevailed over all the differences in our backgrounds. Jack had grown up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town, and came from a working-class family. I'd grown up in a middle-class family in a primarily white, comfortable Midwestern city and had a nondramatic traditional upbringing (before World War II). I was impressed with Jack's commitment to serious writing at the expense of everything else in his life. At a time when the middle class was burgeoning with new homes, two-tone American cars, and black-and-white TVs, when American happiness was defined by upwardly mobile consumerism, Kerouac etched a different existence and he wrote in an original language.
Jack was handsome, and in a bar or a crowd I noticed women thought so, too. He had dark eyes and prominent eyebrows set off by ruddy skin. I don't recall his ever wearing a suit and tie into my office. He dressed in a slightly disheveled way, which was not an affectation; it was just Jack. In public, he bore an intense look, though when he was among family and friends he would offer enough of a smile so you knew when he was happy. He was articulate, careful in his speech. He did not talk the way he wrote.
Jack felt comfortable with me and with other friends, but I saw he was shy and did not do well in public. I think that was why, at least in part, he drank so much. When he drank he may have been a little less shy, but he was not obstreperous.
Book publishing was still very traditional then, and I was not totally surprised or discouraged with one rejection after the other. For four years I could not find an editor or publisher who shared my enthusiasm for On the Road.
The most striking rejection was from Joe Fox at Knopf, a publishing house known for the high quality of its books and for which Joe was one of the very best young literary editors at the time. Kerouac, Joe said, "does have enormous talent of a very special kind. But this is not a well-made novel, nor a saleable one nor even, I think, a good one. His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels, geographically and mentally, of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so."
Jack found the rejections too depressing. On June 28, 1955, disheartened by my lack of success, he wrote me that he wanted to "pull my manuscripts back and forget publishing." I noticed he was not saying he was discouraged about writing; it was publishing that discouraged him, and of course most of the male editors working at publishing houses at that time were from a very different generation. I thought I knew Jack well by then, so I ignored his request and continued submitting. Twelve days later he changed his mind and we went on as before. I still believed his work would eventually be published.
I had already begun to realize how subjective the publishers' decisions were and to rely on my own judgment. Jack told me he believed in me and my judgment, which helped.
After almost four years of trying to sell Jack's manuscript, I sold a piece of his to the Paris Review with the help of Tom Guinzburg, an editor at and soon-to-be president of Viking Press, and a board member of the Paris Review. He had read Kerouac and already believed in Jack. A few months later, I sold one, then another piece from the manuscript to New World Writing, a literary magazine in pocket-book format, published then by New American Library. Shortly after the second story appeared, I had a call from Keith Jennison, a young Viking editor. He, Malcolm Cowley—a distinguished literary critic and associate editor at Viking—and Tom Guinzburg were the strong Kerouac fans at Viking.
"Dammit, Sterling," Keith said, "we can't let that manuscript go unpublished any longer." He made me an offer of $900 against royalties. I said no, got him up to $1,000, and closed the deal. Jack took the good news in stride. He had come to believe the book would eventually be published, and its happening now was merely a confirmation of his belief.
Shortly after the contract was signed, Helen Taylor, an experienced senior editor, whose first love was music, began working with Jack to edit the manuscript, while the lawyers expressed their concerns about the names and likenesses of some of the book's characters. She and Jack had an initial struggle over style. Her editing was extremely sensitive. She made cuts and very minor changes without in any way impeding the flow of Jack's prose, although that wasn't how Jack felt. The two came to an understanding. Jack's understanding.
In an extraordinary letter to Helen—extraordinary because Kerouac had not yet become the Jack Kerouac—he wrote in almost defiant language what he demanded of his editor and publisher. He left no doubt who was in charge. And for any skeptic who might have thought his book was only the underdeveloped essays of a free spirit and not the thoughtful writing of an exacting writer, this letter alone would dispel the myth:
Here are the galleys exactly as I want them published. I want to be called in to see the final galley and check it again against my original scroll, since I'm paying for this and my reputation depends on it ... Just leave the secrets of syntax and narrative to me.
He then went comma by comma, explaining why he'd done what he'd done. For example, he wrote:
My "goodbye" (the spelling of it) is based on the philological theory and my own belief that it means "God be with ye" which is lost in the machine-like "goodby."
He advised her that he'd written "I was seeing the white light everywhere everything," not "the white light everywhere, everything."
He was not averse to having an editor. Jack acknowledged that in an entire manuscript he might have ten or twelve "mistakes or serious problems."
In a friendly tone, Jack suggested that on his next manuscript, they could thrash it out together, but, he warned, "no more irresponsible copy-editing of my Mark Twain Huckleberry Finn prose."
By then, he and Helen had an understanding, and so he concluded:
With freedom in mind I can write a book for every October.
See you soon, and mucho thanks.
I sold a subsequent book of Jack's, The Subterraneans, to another publisher, whose initial editing was totally insensitive. Fortunately, we caught it before publication. On the Road became the only manuscript of Jack's that was ever edited. Jack had become such an important literary figure that he could and did demand complete control over his words. At Jack's request, I would include in each contract the following clause: "The publisher may not change a word of the manuscript nor alter the punctuation," or some variation thereof.
But in preparing On the Road for publication, both Jack and Viking wavered on the title. It was to be either The Beat Generation or On the Road. John Clellon Holmes, who was Jack's friend and my friend and client, had used the term Beat Generation in a popular publication first. His article, "This Is the Beat Generation," appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on November 16, 1952. In the end, On the Road won out. In my humble opinion there was never any contest. On the Road is a much more descriptive, seductive title. "Beat Generation," I am convinced, would have limited the life of this book.
A year after Keith Jennison's call, during July and August 1957—the book had not yet been published—I began to feel the swelling wave of enthusiasm and excitement for it. Half a dozen times in the early afternoon, I had calls from one publishing person after another, all expressing the same sentiment: "Sterling, I just had lunch with so-and-so of Viking, and all he (or she) could talk about was the Kerouac novel." It didn't make any difference which Viking editor they had lunched with, the conversation was the same. This was the book they were all excited about. At a publishing house like Viking, in those days the enthusiasm was genuine, not a conscious, staged production. It was very effective.
On September 5, 1957, On the Road was launched with an electrifying New York Times review by Gilbert Millstein. An extremely perceptive and talented writer himself and a man of great integrity, Millstein, who was well connected with the current culture, was filling in for the regular New York Times reviewer, Orville Prescott, who was on vacation. It was serendipity: No one at the Times could have done it better. Prescott was of a different generation, and his reviews tended not to be as colorful or dramatic as Millstein's turned out to be. Millstein called the novel "a historic occasion ... an authentic work of art," adding that it was "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is." Millstein likened the importance of On the Road to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and he called the writing "almost breathtaking."
One striking reaction was that of the excellent young literary editor at Lippincott, Corlies "Cork" Smith, who had been reading the Millstein review on the train en route from Philadelphia to his office in Manhattan. He was so affected that he did something rather extraordinary in publishing: Instead of going to his office—where he could have phoned a fellow editor at Viking for a complimentary copy, as was the usual practice—he hurried to the closest bookstore and actually bought a copy himself.
At the same time, Esquire magazine, known for publishing new and interesting writers, had been sitting on a story by Jack Kerouac for months without making an offer for it. I couldn't get a decision from them. But the day after the Millstein review appeared, they called and made me an offer for "Ronnie on the Mound," a portrait of a pitcher and an interesting piece, but not Jack's best work. So much for Esquire's good taste.
The review made a very strong impression, and the press wanted Jack in New York immediately. I reached him in Florida and left word. He called back shortly after, asking if he could borrow $25—this was 1957, remember—for a bus ticket to New York. I had previously loaned him $40 so he could buy a Christmas present for his mother. Years later I learned he had also borrowed money from his mother and written his friend Joyce Glassman asking for $30. At that time, Joyce's apartment—although I didn't know where it was in the city—was Jack's personal headquarters when he came to New York. And using our money, he managed to get to the city without delay.
Once Jack arrived, he was taken in hand by Pat McManus, Viking's very experienced head publicist, but shortly thereafter, around 11:15 one morning, Viking phoned: Where was Jack? He was about to miss publicity appointments. I thought I knew where he was. I had heard it from Jack the day before. I hailed a taxi to take me to 65 West Sixty-Fifth Street, Joyce's apartment. When I arrived, Jack was lying on his back on the living-room floor. He was already overwhelmed, shocked by the swift change from obscurity to smothering adulation. But he pulled himself together and made the appointment on time.
From that day on, writers, all of whom had read the Millstein review, and most of whom had actually read Jack's book, began phoning, mailing, and drifting into my office from all over the country. I remember a would-be author who had driven nonstop from Denver in his battered Ford with a cardboard patch over a broken window. He was not alone. There were a number of other young men who wrote about or acted out copycat cross-country trips like those described in On the Road. The manuscript of the Denver writer, as you might guess, was totally unpublishable, as were most of the others. Almost all were superficially imitative of Jack's writing on his subject, but without his talent.
The displays of curiosity, admiration, even hero worship continued for months. One night after Jack had spent a tiring day in New York City, he took the train back to Northport, Long Island, arriving shortly before midnight. He had to walk across a couple of fields to get home to Gilbert Street, where he was living with his mother, whom he called Mémère. When he arrived, his front porch was crowded with young people—none of whom Jack knew—who had been waiting for hours to party with him. It was almost dawn when he climbed into bed.
Benzedrine was a part of Jack's creative life. Before he told me that in letters, I was reading a manuscript of his and noticed the tempo and pacing of his prose changed around page 40. When I called him he explained he'd been drinking a lot of coffee. (He had written On the Road on "after dinner black coffee," explaining that he was younger then.) I interpreted that to mean that as he aged, he needed stronger stimuli. Early in 1960 he planned to write a novel called Beat Traveler, but was waiting for his supply of the amphetamines to arrive so he could start.
Jack never actually spoke to me about using drugs. I think he looked on me as rather a nonuser of any stimulant—I was a social drinker in those days, I never did drugs, and I hardly even smoked cigarettes or cigars. For a while, in my thirties, I smoked one pack of cigarettes a week, though I never inhaled, and I stopped abruptly one evening when my wife said, "Sterling, you never used to cough like that when we first met." I never finished that cigarette. I'd played sports all my life, and it was important to me to stay in good physical shape.
Excerpted from Lord of Publishing by Sterling Lord. Copyright © 2013 Lord of Publishing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sterling Lord (b. 1920) is the founder and cochairman of Sterling Lord Literistic and has been representing authors such as Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey for more than half a century. Born in the Mississippi River town of Burlington, Iowa, Lord graduated from Grinnell College in 1942. After serving in the air force in WWII, Lord worked in New York City for a number of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, before opening his literary agency in 1952. In addition to Kerouac and Kesey, he has represented such authors as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dick Francis, Howard Fast, and Stan and Jan Berenstain. Lord was nationally ranked in the Boys Tennis Division (age fifteen and under) and the Junior Tennis Division (eighteen and under). He has played competitive tennis for seventy-eight years and competed with or against Don Budge, Helen Wills Moody, Billy Talbert, Jean Borotra, and Marcel Bernard. Lord lives in New York City.
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The fascinating story of one of publishing's true greats. Lord comes across as an utter gentleman and stories of his interactions with some of the most legendary American authors were an absolute treat to read.
Lord gives voice to a story of drive and determination. He made history but is aware that his story is intertwined with publishing's constant evolution. This book is for anyone who wants to understand what it takes to outpace a changing industry and for writers who want to understand what goes on behind the scenes. What a fascinating man.
In this touching and highly self-revealing memoir, Mr. Lord captures the depth of literary evolution in this country over the last sixty years. He also shows the courage, tenacity and skill it takes to bring great works of literature to life. His candid revelation of the human drama of the creative process of both the authors who worked with him and himself is riveting. I finished the book feeling tremendous admiration for Mr. Lord and his undying tenacity in the pursuit and support of what and who he believed in. I also felt envious of the writers who were fortunate enough to be his clients.
Really enjoyable memoir from a living legend.
This book is a necessary contribution to the world of publishing. Lord experienced a lifetime of changes and yet managed to remain at the top of his field. Here, he tells you how.
I read an advance copy of this and found the writing to be utterly boring and amateur. Perhaps the "Lord of Publishing" should have hired a ghostwriter.